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The Volkswagen Up! has finally arrived in Australia with a starting price of $13,990. Will this city-friendly and European-focused sub-light car have any real impact on our market or will it fizzle out like other micro three-cylinder cars have done in the past?
It may be the first car in the world with a ‘!’ in its name, which makes it sound like the latest smartphone from a Korean copycat factory, but the Volkswagen Up! is by no means a gimmick or a toy car. It’s a serious and original contender that heads Volkswagen’s efforts against the increasing number of sub-light cars that are surely but slowly gaining traction in our market.
In Europe, cars as small as the Volkswagen Up! are the answer to city congestion and limited parking. Over there, micro cars are bought by men and women, without fear of social judgment. Although we share similar road issues as our European friends, Australians are generally reluctant to go for cars as small as the Up!. Mainly because they are seen as girly and generally not suited to our apparent “outdoor” way of life.
The reality, of course, is very different. We don’t frequent the outdoors very often (if at all) and the Up! is not girly but any measure. Volkswagen has deliberately designed the Up! not to be cutesy or overtly feminine (a hard task given the car’s size). It’s just ‘happy’, thanks to its anime-style wide smiling mouth at the front. It’s also relatively practical and likely to suit the needs of the many, despite its small size.
Sit behind the wheel and the Volkswagen family look is instantly obvious. Be it the overuse of black or the stereo system controls, it’s very similar to Polo, which itself is Golf-like. However, there’s also a lot lacking from the cheapest Volkswagen in the range.
There’s no soft-touch plastics to be felt and unlike the Polo and Golf, there’s an instant feeling that the Up! was engineered for a much tighter budget. The driver’s door, for example, has no controls for the passenger window (cheaper not to run an additional wire and switchgear). The rear window on the five-door doesn’t go down, but pushes out to open (slightly). There are no audio controls on the steering wheel, no USB input, no standard Bluetooth connectivity, very small screen for the stereo and the list goes on.
Priced $3,000 less the base model manual Polo, the Up! is Volkswagen’s answer to a budget conscious buyer looking for a city runabout with style and brand kudos. It's offered in both three and five-door configurations. There’s no doubt that the Volkswagen badge and the Up!’s generally good looks will help distinguish it from the ever-reliable but somewhat bland Nissan Micra and Suzuki Alto.
The main challenge Volkswagen will face with potential Up! customers is a lack of an automatic transmission. All current Australian-delivered Volkswagen Up!’s priming for sale, come the 6th of October, will be equipped with a five-speed manual only. As to when an automatic variant will arrive is still uncertain and likely to be more than 12 months away. Given the target market of city dwellers spending time in urban, traffic-riddled environments, lack of an automatic transmission may prove a challenge.
All those things aside, for what it is, the Volkswagen Up! is a brilliant car. The 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine is far more responsive than you’d think. With a power output of just 55kW accompanied by 95Nm of torque, the little Up! gets up and going briskly and hardly feels out of breath. When it gets a little hilly, you’ll start to count to kW and drop down a few gears to keep things rolling but for the generally flat city environment, it’s not lacking in the power department. On a related note, the manual gearbox is smooth and funx to use. Fuel usage is officially 4.9L/100km but expect that to rise to around the low to mid 6s in the real world.
The Up! is bit like the Tardis from Doctor Who. It's much bigger inside than it looks. The impressive use of space has resulted in a comfortable and practical cabin. Measuring nearly half a meter shorter than the Volkswagen Polo, the Up! is surprisingly not cramped inside. You can, genuinely, fit four adults in the five-door without hassle and can certainly give it a good go in the three-door. The boot can take the weekly shopping without fail and if you happen to frequent at ikea, the ability to fold the rear seats and fit items as long as 2M inside is very handy.
Build quality is typical Volkswagen, sturdy and well put together. In fact, the Volkswagen Up! is actually built at the same Slovakian factory that makes the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7, so you can almost suggest the quality control is up to Porsche standards.
Then there’s the Up!’s driving dynamics, which leave its competition far, far behind. Around the outskirts of Melbourne, we pushed the Up! hard into corners and found it behaved amicably. The tiny 14-inch steel rims do their best to defy the laws of physics while the well-tuned suspension provides a great balance between a sporty ride and a comfortable daily commuter. Steering is also rather good, precise, responsive and without much play. The steering wheel itself feels too big for the car and depending on how you have it positioned (no telescopic adjustment), it can potentially block parts of the instrument cluster.
Then there’s the price. $13,990 for a Volkswagen is pretty good, no matter what planet you’re from. You may think that it lacks a great deal of standard features, such as Bluetooth and USB connectivity, but lets put things into perspective. Firstly, Volkswagen will option out an integrated satellite navigation system for $500.
This connects the SatNav unit (which mounts on the dash) and the Up! via a direct and proprietary link and also happens to add integrated Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming functionality in the same package. It can also act as a trip computer, giving you advice on your driving style to minimize fuel usage. Not bad for $500 and it almost defeats the purpose of needing a USB port for music as wireless audio streaming (offered by any smartphone or iPod touch made in the last few years) does a better job.
Then there are things like reverse parking sensors and cruise control, which can be optioned for all of $600. So really, add $1,100 to the price of your Up! and all of a sudden you’ve got full Bluetooth audio capabilities, an integrated satellite navigation system, parking sensors and cruise control. That makes a far more compelling package. But wait, there’s more.
The party piece here is Volkswagen’s city emergency braking system, a first for this segment. Essentially, it uses lasers to detect cars in front and assist the driver in avoiding low speed accidents. It may sound like something out of a science-fiction movie, but we can assure you it’s real and available on a car for less than $14,000. It works at speeds under 30km/h and can see cars and large obstacles up to 10m infront.
If the vehicle infront suddenly brakes and you’re too busy playing with the fancy satellite navigation system to notice, it will initially prime the brakes and get the car preperaed for your delayed brake input, but if you’re really slow to the party, it will eventually apply braking force automatically to limit the severity of the accident and potentially avoid it altogether. These systems are now common in high-end vehicles, but to have it standard across the Up! range is impressive and certainly an achievement for $13,990.
The Volkswagen Up! is the new benchmark in the sub-light segment. It offers style, sophistication, a maximum five-star EuroNCAP safety rating, auto-braking features, satellite navigation with Bluetooth audio and telephone connectivity as well as parking sensors and cruise control all for around the $15,000 mark. It just happens to provide excellent driving dynamics as well. Not to mention a spacious, comfortable and relatively classy cabin for the price.
It’s hard to the find any major faults with the Up! for the money. If it was offered with an automatic transmission, there’s no doubt that its success in Australia would almost be assured. In the mean time, if you’ve got about $15,000 to spend, don't mind driving a manual and looking for a city-car or a second car to drive to the shops and back, do yourself a favour and check out the Volkswagen Up! when it hits showrooms in October.
Volkswagen Up! manufacturer’s list prices:
- Three-door manual – $13,990
- Five-door manual – $14,990
- Metallic/Pearl effect paint – $500
- Maps + More portable infotainment device – $500
- Panoramic electric glass roof – $1400
- Comfort drive package – $600
- Comfort style package – $2500